A few heretics and I are looking for Chicago residents who are crazy and capable enough to become drivers of economic change. As a child of the 70’s, I watched our neighborhoods change as steel mills and candy manufacturers shuttered, and auto factories laid off workers. In time, our parents cut back on summer vacations to the south and trips to the Fun Town and Great America amusement parks. Our families began to buy less expensive, often outside the neighborhoods, eventually leading the businesses owned and operated by our neighbors to become the ghosts we now know as vacant lots, and some of the people - the "urban poor". In roughly 40 years our beloved American dreams seem to have been relegated to unimaginable events that are now, far too easily and often considered normal. We can change that and we can begin today.
“Wait till next year!” is the ubiquitous quip by losing, but optimistic teams. It basically says, the best part of our history hasn’t been written yet, and golly, wait till next year!”. Members of these teams tend to chart a path toward what they know to be ultimate success and work to apply a set of things to achieve that success in a certain time frame – by “Next Year”.
Conversely, our cities have spent decades pushing the boulder of economic development on an unknown path and saying essentially, “Just wait! We’ll get somewhere”. As if the conditions and attitudes of our communities give us an option of blind patience. Distressed communities are a fringe representation of the health of our overall economy.
“We have patience, but we don’t have time.”
That saying comes from Philip Fairweather, Program Officer at Bethel New Life Small Business Development Center. Philip, like myself, believes change in distressed communities must be deliberate, actionable and measurable if it is to happen at all…. in our lifetimes. Given the devolution of social normalcy, it is increasing apparent – our urban areas have been far too patient with THE issue. Given the lack of much needed results, we certainly no longer have time.
Not in the News
Half of my job really is to convince people that neighborhoods can be transformed by tech-enabled residents in a considerably shorter time span than without. I've seen first hand the entrepreneurs, municipalities and brand support coming together - the first drops from the spigot of smart-community innovation. This is the beginning of our neighborhoods having the chance to be different and significantly different. This can be accomplished by meeting the new requirement for an equally measurable lift in collaboration, a shifting of a wide range of mindsets and a mobilized rethink to replace bias and misplaced beliefs with actionable data.
I often have chats with investors about the premise that the South and West sides of Chicago present an opportunity for economic gains exponentially greater than those of Las Vegas or Dubai - in their transition from desert to economic playground. A far reaching as it sounds, most believe the money is "out here" and there are a growing number of investment options for startups, but there are few, if any entrepreneurs willing or capable of successfully growing traditional businesses under such duress. I agree, however innovation driven by startups from and for the south and west sides can be the tip of the spear that makes economic growth in distressed areas a near-term reality. Again, most people agree in the possibility given the available resources, but where are these elusive innovative entrepreneurs?
Chicago is at a crossroads where its people can control the reins of change, for the first time, together. Community engagement by civic tech leaders and curious tinkering by residents is already on the upswing. Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology continues to evolve their platform increasing access to and adoption of technology for residents in all neighborhoods, while corporate partners bring more resource to help activate a more inclusive startup pipeline.
This phenomenon has resulted in a cycle of visioning, design, and prototyping of tech-enabled businesses by, you guessed it, people from our communities.
My goal is to find the best entrepreneurs in those cycles.
Here is the Challenge
We are issuing a 90-day Challenge to the entire startup ecosystem - entrepreneurs and investors alike. Whether retail or pure tech, entrepreneurs from and for distressed areas have stepped up design-thinking to introduce new economic levers and positive examples of potentially thriving businesses.
The very best of these are economically sustainable, relevant and scalable to other markets. Although participation by residents is increasing, our investor community still lags, and most of these concepts will die on the vine before every getting a chance to enter a market.
Leveraging the Cycle
From now thru October 31st, we are looking for the best 6 entrepreneurs to create small to medium businesses. These entrepreneurs will join a unique cohort of startups designed to build their businesses together.
– FIRST through mentorship and go-to-market support from Colony 5 and partners City Digital, UI Labs and Smart Chicago Collaborative
– With a 3-year goal of opening physical locations on the south and west sides of Chicago.
On August 30th, we are offering a series of instructional workshops (live and online) and meetups to strengthen the cross-section between this nascent moment and the support of skilled techies, corporate citizens and investment and philanthropic communities.
This is the challenge. We ask your participation...
IN OUR LIFETIME.
More to come in our upcoming blog posts.
For more information, to submit an idea, or to register for Challenge events: